In the fall of 2011, during his first year of law school, Elliot Schwab ’14 attended a talk on the interplay between democracy and religion. Energized by the event, Schwab, along with a handful of other students, approached Professor Noah Feldman with the idea of creating a Jewish law reading group.

Feldman immediately saw the potential and was game. “The basic idea was that by looking at classical Jewish texts through the lens of contemporary legal theory, it was possible to deepen one’s understanding of both,” he says.

Feldman found a range of collaborators who were happy to support the fledgling effort, but he acknowledges that it relied more on raw enthusiasm than on financial resources to keep itself afloat. “All we brought to the table was our bright-eyed, bushy-tailed selves,” he jokes.

That scrappy spirit eventually led to bigger things: In 2015, thanks to generous support from Mitchell Julis ’81, Harvard Law School established the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law.

Today, the program still includes the Jewish law reading group. It’s also responsible for an array of even more ambitious events and activities, including a major annual conference that attracts experts and leaders from around the world. Last year’s conference, “What is the Mishnah?,” included speakers from universities from several countries and attracted hundreds of attendees for many of the virtual sessions.

The Julis-Rabinowitz Program is just one of four programs focused on the intersection of law and religion at Harvard Law. The others are the Program on Biblical Law and Christian Legal Studies, the Program in Islamic Law, and the Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World.

These vibrant programs bring together scholars, researchers, and other experts to work on ideas and innovations within the fields of law and religion. They illuminate some of the foundational ways that religion and law have interacted over time. And they offer valuable perspectives on some of the most important events and trends currently shaping our world.

The programs also offer a way for many in the HLS community to explore the links between their personal identities and the legal profession. “When we think about what it means to be a person of integrity, part of that means integrating your personal values into your professional life,” says Natt Gantt ’94, executive director of the Program on Biblical Law and Christian Legal Studies. “These programs can help students and others find that integration.”

Illuminating essential perspectives

A Pew study found that 84% of all people worldwide identify with a religious group, and for many, their faith is a core part of their identity. Historically, many legal institutions and concepts have some antecedents rooted in the history of religious institutions. For example, says Professor Ruth Okediji LL.M. ’91 S.J.D. ’96, faculty director of the Program on Biblical Law and Christian Legal Studies, “The common law of England was developed over centuries by judges, many of whom were formally trained in the Christian faith, and English canon law drew heavily from biblical law. Biblical law was important, among other things, in shaping English inheritance laws, in the creation of cities of refuge in criminal cases, and in the practice of debt cancellation. In addition to this historical influence, biblical law remains relevant to pressing societal challenges today,” Okediji continues. “Modern anti-slavery and environmental stewardship campaigns, for example, draw significant moral power from biblical texts. The relevance and lasting purchase of biblical law are evident in many of our social practices and political commitments, such as the structure of the working week, equality under the law, the idea of rest (Sabbath), and constraints on political authority.” She notes that “law and theology are both concerned with questions of guilt, innocence, mercy, forgiveness, and judgment. To study biblical law is to study materials that illuminate the context and texture of our cultural and legal DNA, and that contribute to a deeper appreciation of how law develops over extended periods of time.”

While Christianity is the largest religion in the United States, the nation also has the second-largest Jewish population in the world (behind only Israel). Says Feldman: “Jewish law is one of the oldest, most significant, and most complex systems of law in the world. It is both religious and general, theoretical and practical.”

Moreover, Professor Intisar Rabb, director of the Program in Islamic Law, notes that nearly a fifth of the world’s population is Muslim. “The study of Islamic law is something of increasing consequence and importance for the study and understanding of law generally,” she says. “For Harvard, which has a global footprint, these programs are an essential part of the school.”

‘It’s opening up unique possibilities’

Among their many pursuits, these programs fuel innovation in their respective fields through creative projects, collaborations, and connections. From using the latest tech tools to mine sources from hundreds of years ago, to bringing people together in unexpected combinations to dream up new ideas, the programs provide participants with opportunities to think big about what is possible.

Take, for example, SHARIAsource, the flagship project of the Program in Islamic Law launched by Rabb in 2015. SHARIAsource leverages data science and artificial intelligence tools to make it easier to do contextual searches across some 1,400 years’ worth of Islamic law sources.

SHARIAsource can help streamline research that might take years — or allow scholars to ask questions that might otherwise have been too complex to analyze without it.

Rabb herself is a case in point. She did wide-ranging analysis on the principle of reasonable doubt in Islamic law as part of her Ph.D. research and a book project years ago, and she says the Courts&Canons tools on SHARIAsource — which include SEARCHstrata for better finding sources in the HLS Library catalog, the CnC Data-Entry tool for researchers, and CnC-Qayyim for data visualization — would have transformed and significantly trimmed her research process. “It took me 10 years to absorb the principle across time and place,” she says. “Tools like the ones we are building on SHARIAsource would have made the work far less arduous.”

With the support of a global team of advisers, scholars, and editors, SHARIAsource continues to get more powerful. “AI and data science are relatively young fields,” says Rabb, “but it’s opening up unique possibilities for scholars.”

In the Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World, led by Professor Kristen Stilt, innovation is fueled through its robust visiting fellow program and related programming, which attract both established and emerging scholars.

Topics that fellows and speakers have addressed in their work have included everything from LGBTQ issues and migrant rights to animal-related and environmental issues. “These are not conventional topics in Islamic legal studies,” says Stilt, “which is exactly why we think it is so important to foster them here. Our program supports innovative, cutting-edge ideas; provides a space where people feel comfortable taking intellectual risks and testing ideas; and brings together a cohort of fellows who encourage each other to do the best work possible.”

For Andrew Bush, a visiting fellow for the program in spring 2020 and spring 2021, it deeply influenced his research on the ways that Iraqi law, and earlier Ottoman law, adjudicate questions of marriage and divorce for Muslims. “PLS gave me the time and space to think patiently with others,” he says. “I engaged with scholars trained in anthropology, history, and law, as well as scholars working on Islamic literature. The office space we shared, and then even the virtual space we shared as the pandemic set in, allowed for extended engagement, sharing works-in-progress at various stages of development, and follow-up conversations over the long term.”

Keeping abreast of what’s new

HLS’s programs on law and religion can help their participants dig deep into the past — but they also have a lot to say about the current state of the world. Through speaker events and reading groups, blog posts and conferences, these students use the combination of religion and law to understand and respond to today’s news.

The ongoing pandemic is one such topic. While it has opened up all sorts of seemingly novel legal questions, Feldman notes that many of them aren’t so novel after all. For example, Jewish legal authorities have been addressing certain aspects of pandemics through the lens of the Talmud, the primary source of Jewish religious law, for hundreds of years — including during periods of history when pandemics and epidemics were far more common than they are today. “By exploring these sources, we are able to contextualize a set of questions, and use them to think about contemporary legal questions,” says Feldman. “What should the law do in the condition of pandemics? Should the law mandate that people stay home? What should the law do about people who want to attend religious services?” (It turns out, he says, that the legal arguments for and against lockdowns and service attendance were as varied then as they are today.)

The Program on Biblical Law and Christian Legal Studies facilitates the study of biblical law within the broader context of legal pluralism. Many students at HLS are eager to understand and engage with competing accounts of the purpose, function, and limits of law. And for law students there is a clear parallel between reading biblical canon and understanding how lawyers handle doctrinal sources of law, even if different motivations compel the study of each. The program offers a unique opportunity to study a spiritual jurisprudence that still exerts tremendous influence in our public discourse. “Whether or not one is personally committed to the Bible, studying biblical law can be richly rewarding because it adds depth to one’s understanding of law more generally,” says Okediji. “[The Bible] is rich in wisdom, ethical insights, and practical tools that provide different lenses through which to view legal rules and the administration of justice. Students learn to examine ideas from the Bible that can enrich our pluralistic society. Students who attend public lectures, take classes, or join reading groups offered through the program are exposed to a broader understanding of law, the role of lawyers, and the ethical rules to which the profession is expected to adhere.”

Meanwhile, the Islamic Law Blog regularly covers disparate and timely topics such as COVID-19, data science, and finance. “It’s a way of having rich, ongoing conversations,” Rabb says. “It’s a great way for anyone — ranging from students to comparativists to members of the general public — to keep abreast of what’s new with respect to Islam and law.”

The blog is gaining notice: More than 100 different people have written posts on the site. More generally, the program’s collective online reach over time — through the blog, web-based events, and social media — has zoomed into the hundreds of thousands over the course of the pandemic.

Fueled by passion

For many of the participants in the programs, the work is about more than fueling academic work or a career — it’s a deeply personal pursuit.

As a recent Daniel Fellow for the Program on Biblical Law and Christian Legal Studies, Isaac Sommers ’21 helped organize an array of program activities, from guest lectures to events featuring public readings of Scripture.

Today, he continues to feel deeply grateful for the program as he plans for the kind of work he wants to pursue. More than just a network of friends and colleagues, he says it was a way for him to think deeply about bringing the values of his Christian identity into his work. He notes, for example, that he has sought out opportunities to promote the values of human life and human dignity, such as doing legal work defending people on death row.

Elliot Schwab, meanwhile, has been more than just an enthusiastic cheerleader as the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law has grown and thrived.

After helping nurture the early version of the program as a student, Schwab has gone on to become a leading voice on Jewish schools and secular education. In 2019, he returned to campus as a participant in a panel discussion hosted by the program about secular education in Orthodox yeshivas. “My perspective in this area was informed, and my engagement was inspired, by my experiences in the program,” he says.

In a way, it was a full-circle moment that represented exactly what these programs were designed to do: They bring together people with expertise and experience to explore the intersection of religion and legal thought. And they help individuals find their place within this context so they can flourish.